After the nightmare of the attacks by the Islamic State in Paris on Nov. 13, the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land in Jerusalem called for a unification of “forces of good” to put an end to the rampage. It is impossible to argue with that exhortation except to ask how the “forces of good” should mobilize themselves without further contributing to the evils they oppose. There are no easy choices ahead in confronting the Islamic State (for which the bishops used the Arabic acronym Daesh) and unraveling the geopolitical disaster that is the broken state of Syria, but a few bad responses are already evident.
One bad response is to surrender to hysteria. Though an apparently fraudulent Syrian passport was found at the scene of one attack in Paris, the members of this terror squad increasingly appear to be resident Europeans. That fact did not prevent some U.S. politicians from rhetorically turning over the life rafts of Syrian refugees. Their example was particularly disheartening in light of the refusal by President François Hollande of France to do the same.
U.S. bishops and other religious leaders likewise rejected calls to turn away refugees. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, offered condolences on Nov. 17 to the families of the victims in Paris but expressed his dismay at calls to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees who are themselves fleeing terror. Instead of “using this tragedy to scapegoat all refugees,” he said, U.S. public officials should work together “to end the Syrian conflict peacefully so the close to 4 million Syrian refugees can return to their country and rebuild their homes.”
These politicians did a disservice to an already fearful public. Syrian refugees are not crashing ashore on U.S. coasts or crossing its borders. Current policies already require rigorous and lengthy security vetting overseas.
Another misstep, the disproportionate attention to the suffering in the Paris violence, perpetuated an alienating narrative of Western primacy. But the world is increasingly united in suffering at the hands of Islamist terror. Most of its victims are Muslims themselves. Increased attentiveness to these victims is important, both morally and strategically, to muster the “forces of good” for any collaborative campaigns to suppress ISIS terror.
A final, perhaps most treacherous mistake in the aftermath of the Paris attacks is to be deceived by the glamour of retribution. The United States has long made an idol out of military might, a capricious divinity indifferent to its worshipers’ hopes and expectations. Since the Paris attacks, many have reflexively demanded the familiar course of heaping more violence upon violence in emotional appeals for a campaign of “overwhelming” force to “crush” the Islamic State. This may be the outcome welcomed most by ISIS recruiters, who have found resentment of Western aggression a powerful aid (see “Lessons of Paris” ).
It is true that ISIS-controlled Syria/Iraq has been degraded into a vast, criminal enterprise of violence and oppression. The painful experience of the United States in the region should by now have established that the promise of military power as a reliable agent of change, stability and security is a false one. America’s faith in the use of force is what got it into this catastrophic muddle in the first place.
Lasting security, stability and peace will be achieved only through encounter and reconciliation with the sources of potential support for extremism bubbling under Western and Middle Eastern societies. That process acknowledges how much Western intrigues and oil addiction have contributed to the current crisis. It requires a re-evaluation of U.S. relationships with allies in the Middle East and with antagonists who contribute to regional instability in pursuit of their own goals. For European powers—and other nations whose citizens provide martyr-fodder for ISIS extremism—it should propel an examination of conscience in response to the home-grown disaffection of so many Muslim and other youth.
Accepting a patient, comprehensive campaign to isolate the Islamic State and its supporters means recognizing the possibility of other acts of terror; it does not mean acquiescing to them. All reasonable efforts should continue to diminish ISIS and protect the vulnerable, including U.N.-administered safe areas and no-fly zones enforced by NATO. Meanwhile, the international community must make a cease-fire in Syria, the epicenter of disorder, the highest global priority.
But rationalizations for yet another war in the Middle East cannot overcome just war appeals for proportionality and demands for noncombatant immunity. After the experiences of the recent past, who can argue for a reasonable probability of success? Driving ISIS terrorism into the ground creates risks for the open societies of the West, but they pale in comparison to the suffering and broadened instability that will be engendered by a vast new military adventure in the region, even one intended to “achieve peace.”